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Playing Game Theory Against the Kids

As college students, it wasn’t too many years from when we were at the dinner table refusing to eat the broccoli for dinner or when we were defiant to our parents and wanted to watch TV for 30 more minutes. As most parents probably think, it is always a losing battle when it comes to arguments like those with their kids. However, with a couple game theory strategies, parents (who are rational players) can succeed in battles against their kids (not-so-rational players). Barry Nalebuff, a professor at the Yale School of Management stresses, “It isn’t about what you would do in another person’s shoes, he says; it’s about what they would do in their shoes.” Thus as you can tell from this statement, game theory applies to this situation of players because we know what the kid will choose in their shoes.

A couple of examples include: picking up toys/clothes, eating that gross food on the dinner plate, and which story to read at bedtime with arguing siblings. To begin with, for picking things up, it is suggested to use a “tit for tat” strategy. It is believed that going one at a time seems more feasible and less aggravating then saying pick up everything. The child would pick up one and the parent would pick up the other making a bearable compromise for the child. When it comes to eating food, to the child, making him/her eat something he/she does not want to is assumed as a loss to them. In order to make them feel like they have some say, using the game theory strategy to up the initial offering and having the kids choose two, the child feels he has won or tied by only eating half of the initial prices. For the parent, they succeeded in getting their child to eat two foods they did not want. Last example is of siblings fighting over which book to choose for a bedtime story. The strategy here is to have the parent make them play a game resulting in a definite winner and definite loser. The winner then gets to choose the book, but if they do not agree after it is chosen, no one gets a story read to them. This strategy makes the winning child to take the other siblings preference or else no one will get a story.

Each strategy takes into consideration the other player’s motives/preferences. We also see from author William Poundstone’s anecdote that he had his three teenage kids auction for a spot to baby-sit his youngest child. Here, each kid bid and took a value way under their desired value. It goes to show with most conflicts there is a certain way to use the concept of game theory to make an action that favors the parent because they understand how the child will think and what the child will want. All in all, game theory can be applied to various situations and if we can understand it, then one day we will be able to make our kids brush their teeth without hassle.



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September 2014